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Microsoft's Learning Tools beta for OneNote hopes to help students with dyslexia

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Alongside the Education Edition of Minecraft released today, the company is also releasing a new set of features for OneNote called "Learning Tools." It's an add-on that lives in your menu bar once it's installed, giving students access to "advanced" dictation and an immersive reading mode.

Microsoft says that the tools should be helpful for people with dyslexia, because it includes several different things to assist with reading: speaking text aloud as the current word is highlighted, spacing out the letters to make them easier to follow, using a custom font called "Fluent Calibri" that Microsoft claims is easier to read, and parsing out both syllables or parts of sentences to clarify their sound and purpose.

Microsoft's new font is designed to reduce "visual crowding" between the letters, though the company hasn't yet done any formal studies on whether it's helpful for people with dyslexia. It seems as though there's more research to be done on whether custom fonts can be helpful, though line length and spacing are thought to be important — both can be customized with Microsoft's new tool. Although Microsoft says it has good reasons for believing all of these improvements will improve reading comprehension, we will need to wait for real studies before we can really say whether they are effective, let alone as helpful as the company hopes.

The natural language processing necessary for parsing out the different parts of speech in a sentence actually happens locally on the machine, so users won't have to be connected to the internet to take advantage of them. Users will need to be connected to the internet to dictate into OneNote, because the dictation feature included in Learning Tools leans on Bing to convert speech to text.

Most of the tools that Microsoft has included in the Learning Tools plugin have been available before, but not as a single package. That package was created last year by a small team that won Microsoft's annual Hackathon, but now it's available to the general public. You can find instructions for installing it here — it's compatible with OneNote 2013 and 2016.